Lucien Carr: Murder and the Beats in New York City
|Nicholas E. Barron||Aug 13, 2019|
Lucien Carr was born into a good life. His family was wealthy. He was handsome and charismatic.
Though he grew up during the Great Depression in St. Louis, MO, a city roiling with unemployment and civil unrest, Carr’s family was insulated.
They lived for a time near other moneyed families in the city's Central West End neighborhood. Then the Carrs and other wealthy folks moved west into St. Louis County.
And Lucien Carr received the opportunities expected for children of privilege, even in 1930s America. These opportunities included extracurricular activities, one of which was the Boy Scouts of America.
One of the leaders for Carr's troop was a man named David Kammerer.
Kammerer, like Carr, was a St. Louis native from a well-to-do family. He was a graduate of Washington University where, after graduation, he worked as an English instructor.
And Kammerer worked part-time as a counselor to the Scout troop that 12-year-old Lucien Carr joined.
We don’t know how, when, or the exact nature of it, but a relationship developed between Kammerer and Carr. It was a relationship that would lead to a fatal conclusion.
Lucien Carr and David Kammerer
In the summer of 1939, Lucien Carr’s mother, Marion, permitted him to travel to Mexico with 28-year-old David Kammerer. Carr was 14.
The duo visited Kammerer’s uncle in Mexico City. They rode bicycles, attended a bullfight, and went horseback riding.
And the relationship between Kammerer and Carr grew. It was a relationship that seemed to be supported by Marion, at least at first.
After all, Carr’s father, Russell, abandoned the family when Lucien was a toddler. So Marion may have seen in David Kammerer a father figure for her youngest son.
But in 1940, the year after Carr's and Kammerer's Mexico trip, Marion discovered letters Kammerer had written her son. Some claim that the letters caused Marion to want to separate her son from Kammerer.
Perhaps that's why she enrolled Lucien in boarding school in Chicago. And, when that didn't work out, she sent him to Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.
Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.
But Kammerer was still in the picture. When Carr boarded a train in St. Louis in January 1940 to head to Andover, it was Marion and Kammerer who saw him off.
Academically, Lucien Carr did fine at Andover, but he struggled to fit in. The following year he returned to St. Louis, attending a prep school there for his senior year of high school.
After graduating, Carr went in the summer of 1942 to Bowdoin College in Maine.
But within weeks of arriving, Carr was twice brought before a disciplinary committee. After his second appearance before the committee, Carr voluntarily left the school.
And who was it that showed up in a car to drive Carr back to St. Louis? David Kammerer.
Lucien Carr Bounces Around
Lucien Carr's next stop, in 1943, was the University of Chicago.
Someone else moved to Chicago at the same time as Carr: David Kammerer.
Carr's time in Chicago, however, didn't last long. One day, he turned on a gas oven and placed his head inside. He lived and insisted that the stunt was an art project, not a suicide attempt.
Still, Carr was sent to a psychiatric hospital. He spent a month there.
When Carr got out, his mother, Marion, enrolled him at Columbia University in New York City. She had moved from St. Louis to New York, and she wanted to keep her troubled son close to her.
And guess who else relocated to New York? Yep, David Kammerer.
This move, though, would be David Kammerer's last.
A Fortuitous Meeting
It didn't take Lucien Carr long to gain a reputation at Columbia University. His language was vulgar and his antics wild and outrageous.
But Carr was also talented. He did well in a class taught by Lionel Trilling and impressed his peers with his intelligence.
One of Carr's professors called him "definitely a superior student."
And Carr made friends.
One day, Carr was in his dorm room listening to a record of a Johannes Brahms composition when there was a knock on his door. Opening it, that's how Carr met another Columbia student named Allen Ginsberg.
Ginsberg and Carr became friends.
Carr introduced Ginsberg to a guy he knew from his St. Louis days: William S. Burroughs. And it was around this time that Carr met a Columbia University dropout named Jack Kerouac.
The four young men, Carr, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Kerouac, formed a close group. Someone, though, was on the outside looking in.
Forming the Beats
Lucien Carr and William S. Burroughs both knew David Kammerer from St. Louis.
They introduced Kammerer to their friends Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.
Jack Kerouac (left) and Lucien Carr
But Kammerer didn't fit in. He had little money and often asked Carr for financial support. And his infatuation with Carr grew. This made Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs uncomfortable.
For one thing, it was 26 years before the Stonewall Riots started the gay rights movement in America. Also, Carr had a girlfriend.
And, by all accounts, Kammerer was engaging in behavior that today we call stalking. For example, Kammerer was caught after sneaking into Carr's room to watch him sleep.
While Kammerer stayed on the fringe of the foursome, Carr, Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac spent a lot of time together.
Carr and Ginsberg became roommates. And the group drank together at the West End, a popular bar near Columbia University's campus.
Indeed, the West End Bar was the setting for what would be David Kammerer's final act.
Missing the Boat
Throughout the summer of 1944, Jack Kerouac and Lucien Carr came up with a plan: They would join a U.S. Merchant Marine ship bound for France.
The idea was to walk across France with Kerouac pretending to be French and Carr pretending to be his deaf-mute friend.
This is where the West End Bar operated in Manhattan's Upper West Side from 1911-2014.
But on the night of Aug. 13, Carr and Kerouac got drunk and missed their boat. Instead of sailing to France, they headed to the West End Bar to continue drinking.
Around midnight, Kerouac left to go home. Between the bar and his apartment, Kerouac bumped into David Kammerer.
Kammerer asked about Carr, and Kerouac said he was still at the West End.
Kammerer found Carr at the West End, and the two drank there until 2 a.m.
The men then walked to nearby Riverside Park. They laid on a grassy embankment at the end of West 115th Street.
And that's when things took a deadly turn.
Lucien Carr Commits Murder
Lucien Carr and David Kamerer were lying on the grass in Manhattan's Riverside Park. It was around 3 a.m. on Aug. 14, 1944.
Both men had been drinking. Then, according to Carr, Kammerer made a sexual advance. Carr said he rejected Kammerer and the two started fighting.
Carr, who weight about 40 pounds less than Kammerer, was losing the struggle. That's when he pulled a Boy Scouts of America knife he'd had since he was a kid.
Carr stabbed Kammerer twice in the chest.
Then Carr rolled Kammerer's body down the hill to the banks of the Hudson River. He used the laces of Kammerer's shoes to bind the dead man's hands and feet.
He used Kammerer's belt to fasten the victim's arms to the body. And, working quickly, Carr shoved small rocks into Kammerer's pant pockets and clothing.
Carr then pushed Kammerer's body into the Hudson River.
Next, Carr turned to his friends for help.
Hide the Evidence
After killing David Kammerer, Lucien Carr hustled to Jack Kerouac's apartment.
Kerouac and Carr then went to Morningside Park. There Carr buried Kammerer's eyeglasses in a shallow hand-dug hole. And Carr dropped his knife, the murder weapon, in a subway grate.
Where Columbia University's campus and Morningside Park meet.
Next, Carr and Kerouac found William S. Burroughs. Burroughs encouraged Carr to turn himself in by claiming he acted in self defense.
During the day on Aug. 14, Lucien Carr and his attorney arrived at the New York County District Attorney's office. Carr then confessed to killing David Kammerer.
But it took two days before officials charged Carr for murder.
At first, they didn't know if Carr was telling the truth about killing Kammerer. The victim's body hadn't been recovered. And there was little additional evidence that Carr had killed anyone.
But on Aug. 16, a body was pulled out of the Hudson River.
Carr identified it as being Kammerer's. And Carr showed authorities where he buried Kammerer's glasses in Morningside Park.
Carr was then arrested and charged with second-degree murder.
Also arrested as a material witness was Jack Kerouac. And, on Aug. 24, William S. Burroughs was taken into custody as well for being a material witness.
Chance for Reform
Burroughs and Kerouac were released on bail. Carr was not.
Lucien Carr at his arraignment. Photo credit: The New York Times
Instead, Carr went to Bellevue Hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. He clutched a copy of W. B. Yeats's A Vision during his arraignment.
And then, on Oct. 6, 1944, Carr pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter.
Authorities never recovered the murder weapon. Because of this, the assistant district attorney didn't think he could convict Carr of second-degree murder.
The judge in the case sentenced Carr to Elmira Reformatory instead of Sing Sing prison. The judge explained that he felt Carr could become a productive member of society, but that would be less likely if he were around the hardened criminals of Sing Sing.
In reading news coverage from the time of the murder, it's easy to see that Kammerer's reputation as a homosexual made him a less sympathetic victim. And Carr's claim that Kammerer made a sexual advance toward him may have contributed to the light sentence that Carr received.
Viewed in our current time, it's difficult to not see Carr's explanation for the murder as gay "panic" defense.
Still, there's evidence that Kammerer stalked Carr. The older man may even have had a predatory relationship with Carr, stemming from when Carr was a teenager.
We'll probably never know exactly what happened between Kammerer and Carr. But we do know where the Beats went after Kammerer's death.
The Beats Move On
After serving 18 months in a reformatory for killing David Kammerer, Lucien Carr became a copy boy for United Press news wire service.
Carr worked there until retiring in 1993, eventually rising to lead the service's news desk. He avoided the spotlight for the rest of his life.
And Carr kept in touch with his friends, a group who came to be known as the Beats.
When he first published his popular poem "Howl," Ginsberg dedicated it to Carr. He removed the dedication in future publishings, though, at Carr's request.
Early edition of "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg, showing the dedication to Lucien Carr.
Jack Kerouac became a famous author, particularly for his book, On the Road.
William S. Burroughs produced a large body of literary work. His best-known novel is Naked Lunch.
Burroughs and Kerouac co-wrote a manuscript based on their experience with Carr's killing of David Kammerer. They never published the story, perhaps to respect Carr's wishes.
That changed in 2008 when And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks was published.
And, in 2013, David Kammerer's killing received renewed attention with the release of the film, "Kill Your Darlings." Starring Michael C. Hall and Daniel Radcliffe, the movie presents a dramatized version of David Kammerer's killing.
Lucien Carr, a Literary Lion
It's impossible to measure the impact Lucien Carr had on the Beats.
But all available evidence makes the case that without Carr, we would never have had the Beats.
It was Carr who introduced Allen Ginsberg to the works of Arthur Rimbaud, whose writing greatly influenced Ginsberg. It's through Carr that Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs met Neal Cassady, who became a prominent member of the Beats.
And Carr supplied Kerouac with the scroll of paper on which the latter wrote the first draft of On the Road. Carr was the manuscript's first reader, too.
Ginsberg said about Carr, "Lou was the glue."
And The New York Times obituary for Carr called him "a literary lion who never roared."
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